The future is bright for Birmingham, says Frankfurt official
Frankfurt press officer Nikolaus Muenster, who has spent three months in Birmingham, shares his thoughts about the city
When I first came to Birmingham four years ago I had in my mind the image of a run-down old industrial city. But I was really surprised – after the deep depression of the 80s the city had reinvented itself.
I saw a complex, fascinating, young and optimistic city. The streets were crowded with people of all colours and I got the impression of an exciting mixture of differing cultures.
There was, and still is, a feeling of being on a journey to create the Birmingham of the future.
There is still some way to go to become an attractive global city. But there is also pride in how much has been achieved in a short time; pride in the success of some wonderful places and pride in having reduced the impact of the ghastly sins of the architecture of the 70s. And I am met with an incredible enthusiasm for taking the city forward.
Birmingham has a great heritage as one of the most important industrial cities of Great Britain. A lot of old factories and other brick stone buildings are evidence of this time.
But the tourists entering the city by bus or train are not welcomed by proud buildings of a great heritage. Rather the scruffy facades of the abandoned Curzon Street station of the London line and of the old industrial building near by seem to tell a story of decline and decay. But these two iconic buildings could welcome the visitor with the opposite message: Birmingham cares about its industrial heritage and at the same time looks to the future.
The twin city of Frankfurt with its breathtaking skyline greets visitors as a modern forward-looking finance-city. But it too has a problem when people arrive in the city through the quarter around the main-station. Unfortunately this beautiful historic quarter is not a good business card for the city, because it is frequented by drug-addicts and prostitutes.
In Birmingham, I am afraid that a lot of these old industrial buildings will be demolished or will be overshadowed by new spectacular buildings and that would be a pity.
Unfortunately, there may not be such good solutions as Brindleyplace and Mailbox for all old listed buildings.
Along the romantic canals a lot of old houses have been preserved and new brick-buildings sensitively added. Also the bigger office buildings and apartment blocks round the Ikon Gallery fit well in the ensemble. The people have accepted the recreation and enjoy these wonderful places sitting in the cafes and restaurants.
Walking around the city centre I see the wonderful St Philip's Cathedral and get enthusiastic once more for the magnificent stained-glass windows by Burne Jones.
Passing the Museum and Art Gallery I come to the splendidly proud Council House with the ‘‘floozy in the jacuzzi” in front of it. It is a large urban space, where everybody meets, with remarkable artwork like Anthony Gormley’s Iron Man and an impressive view of the historic town-hall resembling a Greek temple.
The eyes enjoy the harmony and the old grandeur. Going on to Alpha Tower through Fletchers Walk, I get an idea of the awful architectural sins of the seventies. But the pedestrian really has little choice for another way, because it is nearly impossible or very dangerous to cross the huge streets.
My way leads me in the direction of Centenary Square and then through the atrium of the Central Library (Paradise Forum) back to the arena next to the Council House.
Oh, yes, the library. From the outside it is an impressive building. It may not please everyone but it is an icon of the Seventies. Unfortunately, it is also an impenetrable barrier to the quarter behind it beginning with Summer Row. Maybe the library shouldn’t have been placed in the Seventies at this point so close to the historic Council House.
But inside, the building no longer meets the requirements of a modern office building. It seems that the library can’t be preserved. Therefore a big urban development is imminent. But it will be difficult to design a building for this sensitive location which opens up the links to the surrounding quarters. But now the fascinating plans for the new library attract the attention – even when the discovery of the remains of old industrial buildings cause a delay.
In Frankfurt we have similar discussions about the heritage of the 70s and new architecture.
This year we will start to demolish a huge 70s office building in the old town-centre. Some people want the architecture of this era to stay. There are plans to reconstruct seven old timbered-houses on the site and to build other houses in a modern style but on the scale of the middle-ages, meaning small houses and narrow streets.
Also a major development is planned for the open heart of the historic old city between the cathedral and the city-hall.
Returning to my Birmingham walk, I walk along New Street and enjoy the street life and people shopping. At New Street Station I don’t look at it, because I know in this week they will start the construction of a very ambitious futuristic station. This will be a big leap forward for the station.
Next, I come to the Bullring and I am pleased with the fascinating façade of Selfridges. My route didn’t take me along one of the countless car parks which surround the centre.
Sure, they were built at a time when cars were thought to be essential for cities and city-planning thought more about cars and streets than about people. Today the car parks add little to the attractiveness of a city-centre. Are all of them really still necessary?
In the Bullring I don’t go shopping, I continue directly to my favourite place, the indoor-market.
It is wonderful to look at this huge offer of fresh fish and meat. I could stroll between the stalls for hours and watch how the butchers saw the bones and cut the meat and ‘ballyhoo’ their goods as the freshest and best ones. It is an original noisy market, where everything finds a use for even the fish heads and fins.
On the way up in the international rankings of global cities, Birmingham fights to get a stronger cultural profile. International managers, scientists and artists demand a high quality of life in the cities, which means, amongst other things, a huge and high level cultural offer. Even if Birmingham already has a lot to offer it is still faced with a double duty.
On the one hand, it must still increase the offer of high-cultural events to attract leading international people. On the other, it must open up the temples of high culture for all its residents. In this respect there is a lot happening.
Almost every museum tries to encourage children to understand the past with special rooms and explanations appropriate for a younger audience. Also, the big concert-halls clearly try to attract people other than the usual concert-goers with special events like an African opera.
The Ikon Gallery tries to awaken interest in modern art. I would love Birmingham to have more profile as a modern and future-orientated city as well as being recognised for its industrial past. The most beautiful old buildings should be refurbished and prepared for research institutes and artists. The city should offer space for thinking about the future and creating it.
A spectacular museum about the industrial culture should be a centre for the discussion about heritage and the future. The city should develop more attractive places like Brindleyplace and should become increasingly attractive for leisure tourists. The system of public transport should be even more user-friendly.
And when all this happens surely even the weather will become better.